Naughten likely to survive after day in the dock

It was as bad a day in the office as Denis Naughten has had in more than six years.

Not since his forced departure from his beloved Fine Gael in 2011 over the downgrading of Roscommon Hospital has he had as rough a day.

It began when he woke up to the front-page story in The Irish Times which said his plans to refer the proposed takeover of Celtic Media by Independent News and Media (INM) for State adjudication were relayed to Denis O’Brien two months before they were made public.

O’Brien, of course, is the largest shareholder in INM and it emerged Naughten had, on November 11, 2016, spoken to a lobbyist acting on behalf of INM in which he made clear the takeover would most likely be referred to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland.

The lobbyist, former government press secretary Eoghan Ó Neachtain, now an agent for Heneghan PR, was known to Naughten from their mutual support of Connacht Rugby and from Ó Neachtain’s time as adviser to Bertie Ahern, Brian Cowen, and finally Enda Kenny.

The subject of the mobile-phone conversation was relayed to INM chairman Leslie Buckley the next day, November 12, by email. He immediately forwarded it on to O’Brien.

Under fire in the Dáil, Mr Naughten confirmed the main details of the Irish Times story.

“I wish to confirm that I received a phone call from Eoghan Ó Neachtain, former press secretary to a number of governments, on the 10th or the 11th of November 2016 informing me that the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission was after approving the INM acquisition of CNML. This was in advance of the CCPC communicating the decision to me,” he said.

So Ó Neachtain knew of the approval before the minister.

“I expressed a purely personal view that the likely course of action would be a referral to a phase 2 assessment [by the BAI] in accordance with the guidelines,” said Naughten.

“In the context of there being a decision by the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission, the legislation about such referrals to BAI is clear that referral is an option to me as minister when there is a planned media merger. If so, there is nothing wrong or inappropriate with me as minister saying to anyone or to the public that if the plan for the merger continued, I would take advice on sending it to the BAI. This is not inside information but simply a reflection of the legislation. I had no inside information to give.”

The opposition parties did not buy the “personal view” defence and this was the shakiest part of Naughten’s performance in the Dáil.

Mary Lou McDonald said the phonecall was “inappropriate” and accused Naughten of misleading the Dáil.

This was because on December 6, under questions from Catherine Murphy of the Social Democrats, he said his officials hadn’t yet made a decision and that he was yet to decide if he would refer the matter to the BAI.

The Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement is not convinced either, saying it may amount to “inside information”.

Naughten also admitted he met Leslie Buckley in May 2017 at a data summit organised by INM, but that they merely engaged in “small talk”.

It was noteworthy that almost half the Cabinet was sitting beside Naughten in the Dáil in a show of solidarity and Fianna Fail is not seeking a head, as it did with Frances Fitzgerald.

A terrible mistake of judgment by Naughten has almost cost him his job, but while there was a degree of annoyance about what he did, the consensus is it “was not a hanging offence”.

New Politics at its best.

Timeline

— Compiled by Fiachra Ó Cionnaith

September 2016: Independent News & Media announces a €4m takeover bid for Celtic Media.

However, the fact this would give INM greater control of media outlets immediately causes competition concerns.

September 3-4, 2016: The National Union of Journalists raises concerns over the potential deal, with NUJsecretary general Seamus Dooley calling on Communications Minister Denis Naughten to use new powers to request a full Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) inquiry into the purchase. Mr Dooley warns failure to do so would amount to “political cowardice”.

October 26, 2016: Sinn Féin TD Brian Stanley says the media industry is on the verge of losing its diversity due to the “concentration” of increasing numbers of outlets under the control of businessman Denis O’Brien and INM.

November 11, 2016: Mr Naughten tells Heneghan PR’s director of public affairs — and former government press secretary — Eoghan Ó Neachtáin he expects the deal to be referred to a BAI inquiry.Mr Ó Neachtáin explains — in the mobile phone call that was not logged as lobbying — he is acting on behalf of INM chairperson Leslie Buckley. While the Government initially denied this conversation, Mr Naughten confirmed it yesterday, but claimed he was simply giving his “personal” opinion and not “insider information”.

November 12, 2016: The following day, Mr Buckley forwards to Denis O’Brien an email from Heneghan PR executive Nigel Heneghan which outlines the November 11 conversation. The email and a subsequent text exchange refer to the Celtic Media takeover.

November 21, 2016: The mooted merger of INM and Celtic Media is examined by Mr Naughten and his officials.

December 6, 2016: Social Democrats TD Catherine Murphy asksMr Naughten during a Dáil debate if he has any information about the Celtic Media deal. Mr Naughten says he has no information and has yet to make a decision on whether to refer the matter to the BAI. Mr Naughten yesterday denies this meant he had “misled” the Dáil.

January 4-10, 2017: The BAI formally recommends the commencement of a phase two review of the Celtic Media takeover, as it is alleged Mr Naughten predicted in the private November 11 phone call.Mr Naughten approves the move review on January 10, the first time the move is revealed publicly.

May 3, 2017: Mr Naughten and INM chairperson Mr Buckley attend a data summit in Dublin. During yesterday’s Dáil debate, Mr Naughten confirmed he and Mr Buckley exchanged “small talk”.

June 2017: With Mr Naughten due to decide on the outcome of the Celtic Media deal, INM pulls out of the move.

August 2017: INM criticises “unhelpful” BAI regulatory rules placed on the deal. The decision is made in response to the Government releasing documents detailing the regulatory oversight involved.

Yesterday: After the November 11 phone call emerges, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Mr Naughten are forced to explain the controversy. Mr Naughten denies he has done anything wrong, saying he did not release “insider information” and has “acted to the letter of the law”.

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